By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Up by 24 points with 7:25 to go, Jacksonville State head coach Jack Crowe thought he had the win in hand.
But down by 24 with 7:25 to go, and a realistic chance at the OVC title and FCS playoff autobid on the line, Eastern Kentucky never stopped believing.
The Colonels worked hard and battled back, and the end result was a thrilling, improbable, 52-48 road win by the Colonels that changed the whole OVC title race in just over seven minutes of game time.
“Plays made the kids believe they could win. But what allows those plays to happen is that no matter how far we were down, the kids never pointed the finger,” Eastern Kentucky head coach Dean Hood said after the game to the Richmond Register. “They never started backbiting and complaining about officiating. They just kept playing hard. That was the key. And a ton of guys made plays down the stretch.”
“With a 24 point lead, you feel it is enough. You feel the game is over,” a ‘visibly shaken’ Gamecock coach Jack Crowe told the Gasden Times after the game as well. “We made a major coaching error allowing several seniors a chance to play.”
It wasn’t just a simple coaching error, but Crowe’s role in Eastern Kentucky’s incredible four-touchdown comeback is a 52-48 loss that he won’t forget for an awful long time.
The Colonels and Gamecocks were no strangers to high-scoring affairs, especially when they play each other. Each time Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State have played each other the last three years, both teams combined for 60 points or more.
The Colonels would go ahead at halftime with a pretty 42 yard touchdown strike, where Colonel quarterback T.J. Pryor would roll right and throw across his body left to a leaping Tyrone Goard at the goal line.
But three straight turnovers by Eastern Kentucky would see Jacksonville State regain near complete control, as the Gamecocks would score on a 1 yard plunge by fullback Calvin Middleton, and two near-perfect completions from quarterback Coty Blanchard to wideout Alan Bonner.
All three touchdowns were set up by Colonel turnovers – including the first interception of the season by Jacksonville State cornerback A.J. Davis, where a nice break on the ball allowed the Gamecocks to set up at the Colonel 19.
After a breakout 83 yard touchdown run by runningback Washaun Ealey through an enormous hole, Jacksonville State would have their fateful 24 point lead.
That’s when Crowe started to give some of his other seniors a chance to play.
But somebody forgot to tell Eastern Kentucky that the game was over.
Pryor would find wideout Cameron Bailey through the middle, where he would take advantage of a misstep in the Gamecock secondary for a 60 yard touchdown pass.
Knowing they needed to recover an onsides kick to make this a game, Eastern Kentucky tried to fool the Gamecocks on a trick play on the kickoff, but Jacksonville State defensive back Rodney Garrott wasn’t fooled at all – and darned near returned the misfired onsides kick for a touchdown.
After backup quarterback Rodney Garrah came in the game, he handed the ball off three straight times, forcing the Colonels to burn two critical timeouts.
With a three score lead with just over five minutes to play, the local guys calling the game started to speculate on the OVC title race, and how Jacksonville State might clinch next weekend.
But it would be the fourth handoff that was to be the disaster for the Gamecocks – and put all those calculations on hold.
Another player without a lot of reps with the first team, runningback Jordan Allen, received a pitch from Garrah – but he never really had a good handle on the football, which ended up in the hands of Eastern Kentucky defensive lineman Anthony Brown.
After he took the ball 73 yards for a touchdown, all of a sudden it was an eleven point game, and when a more conventional onsides kick was recovered by the Colonels, suddenly nobody was counting on a Gamecock victory anymore.
And just one minute later, a Hood connection to wideout Justin Williams made it a 48-45 game with 3 minutes to play.
“It felt like a movie,” Williams said after the game.
“It just kept snowballing on us,” Blanchard said after the game. “Everybody on the sidelines started to get a little antsy.”
Momentum was wearing the white and maroon of Eastern Kentucky, but with four minutes left and the ball, all Jacksonville State needed was a first down or two to hold on to win.
But after three fairly ineffective running plays, the Gamecocks had to punt with just under two minutes left – where Eastern Kentucky would only need a field goal to tie the game.
The first play, Pryor’s pass batted up in the air, and was nearly picked off by defensive back Pierre Warren – but the ball was fatefully knocked out of the defenisve back’s hands by Williams, the intended receiver.
“When I was falling to the ground, I actually said to myself, ‘This is the game,” Williams said. “I just tried to strip it out.”
And the very next play, Pryor would atone for his near-mistake with a 37 yard arrow to wideout Tyrone Goard in the right corner of the end zone to complete the comeback.
“T.J. looked at me and he said, ‘Tyrone, I’m throwing you the ball,’” Goard said after the game. “I told him not to do. He gave me a chance and I judged the ball right and did what I had to do.”
Even with the lead, Jacksonville had one last chance to still win the game. With two timeouts remaining, the Gameocks would drive all the way to the Colonel 1 yard line with 1 second to play.
But in a play reminiscient of the New Orleans’ Saints’ final play against the Green Bay Packers in Week One of the NFL season, Crowe elected to run the ball in the middle of the Eastern Kentucky defense with fullback Calvin Middleton – and was stuffed short of the goal line.
“When it came time for us to knock them off the ball,” Crowe said, “we didn’t do it. Give credit to EKU.”
“We knew we just had to keep playing our game,” Pryor said after the game. “It’s a 60-minute game.”
“I’ve never been part of something so monumental,” Eastern Kentucky linebacker Ichiro Vance said. “We came together as a unit. We knew what we had to do. We had to stop them. It was something unbelievable. I can’t describe it. I have no words.”